When I heard the news that Gregg Allman died, I immediately pulled out his album Laid Back and listened to it over and over, especially the songs “All My Friends,” “These Days,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” I’d never again see Gregg Allman play and sing those songs, nor any of those other Allman Brothers’ songs that wove themselves into the tendrils of my musical DNA. I spent my high school years in the Atlanta area, and I grew up with the Allman Brothers, seeing them play at music festivals in Piedmont Park and high school dances. I still recall the palpable shock we felt when we heard the news that Duane Allman had died in a motorcycle crash, and the even spookier vibes that crawled electrically across our skins when we heard the news about Berry Oakley, who died one year, almost to the day, after Duane, also in a motorcycle crash, three blocks from the spot where Duane died.
Whenever we talk about death with our friends and family, we often ask how folks want to be remembered. The late Leon Russell once told me that he hoped people would remember him as someone who just did his job. Others might say that they live on through their children. There’s also an old tradition that immortality comes through writing books; that is, you continue to live on through the books you’ve written, and every time someone picks up and reads one of your books, he or she encounters your spirit. Of course, musicians who die also leave behind their songs, and live through them. Don McLean had it wrong; there was never a day that the music died, for Duane and Gregg Allman, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Jesse Winchester, Prince, Hank Williams, Dottie West, Patsy Cline — the list goes on — live in us today through their music.
That’s why the title of Jim Dickinson’s memoir — published posthumously; he died in 2009 — I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone (University Press of Mississippi) is just perfect. Of course he’s not gone: He lives on through his gritty Memphis music; through his the records he produced for others; through his sons, Luther and Cody, and their own music; and through that little piano part he added to the Stones’ “Wild Horses” at their Muscle Shoals sessions. In his last words, as recorded on his Zebra Ranch website, Dickinson knew this already: “I refuse to celebrate death. My life has been a miracle of more than I ever expected or deserved. I have gone farther and done more than I had any right to expect. I leave behind a beautiful family and many beloved friends. Take reassurance in the glory of the moment and the forever promise of tomorrow. Surely there is light beyond the darkness as there is dawn after the night. I will not be gone as long as the music lingers. I have gladly given my life to Memphis music and it has given me back a hundredfold. It has been my fortune to know truly great men and hear the music of the spheres. May we all meet again at the end of the trail. May God bless and keep you. World boogie is coming.”
Even more, he now lives on through this memoir. Reading I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone is like sitting down with your beloved uncle and listening to him regale you with stories as you sip slowly on a bottle of bourbon. You’ll cry — though not too much — you’ll be amazed, and you’ll certainly laugh; after you’ve parted, you’ll walk away astonished at Dickinson’s insights into art, music, and human nature.
Dickinson composed I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone over the course of several decades, writing in longhand, mostly in the mornings. His wife, Mary Lindsay, transcribed Dickinson’s writings, and Ernest Suarez, a professor of English at Catholic University of America who’s written on Southern literature and music, edited and introduced Dickinson’s peripatetic reflections on growing up in Memphis, his early days in the music industry, and his work with a wide range of musicians, including Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Bukka White, Albert King, and Arlo Guthrie, among many others. Dickinson also regales us with tales of his coming-of-age as a producer working at Sun, Ardent, Muscle Shoals, and Criteria studios with producers as diverse as Sam Phillips, Chips Moman, John Fry, and Jerry Wexler.
Although born in Little Rock, Dickinson moved to Memphis when he was eight, and while music wormed its way into his ears and heart very early, his mother told him that “playing drums made you crazy. Her distrust of professional musicians sprang from a bad experience dating a clarinet player. She told me over and over, ‘Jimmy, you can be anything in life you want to be. But don’t be a musician.’ She might as well have told me not to put beans in my ears.” Indeed, for by the time he’s 13, Dickinson has discovered the blues and heads off to Ruben Cherry’s Home of the Blues record shop on Beale Street and picked up a copy of a Howlin’ Wolf album: “Howlin’ Wolf led me to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and then Jimmy Reed … the disc jockeys — Rufus Thomas, Martha Jean the Queen, and Honeyboy — on WDIA and WLOK were my teachers.”
Dickinson sprinkles words of wisdom like grains of sand throughout I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone, and you can open the book to almost any page and find hilarious or sobering stories ranging from his visit to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s grave in the Texas flatlands to his role in the movie Gimme Shelter to his helping Gregg Allman achieve his now-familiar high note on “Midnight Rider.” He recalls meeting up with Sid Selvidge, who played with Dickinson’s band the New Beale Street Sheiks: “One afternoon … a stranger walked in out of the summer sunshine, removed his shades, and shuffled his sandals. Meeting Sid Selvidge was a life-changing moment. He was … a skinny blond ruffian with a guitar case and a Communist hammer and sickle belt buckle the size of a hubcap. Sid’s voice — part Appalachian balladeer, part Delta field holler — was considered the best in town, equal parts Almeda Riddle and Jimmie Rodgers, with some Tex Ritter and Sam Cooke.”
He offers incisive reflections on music that still resonate even now, especially when describing the differences between soul music and Motown: “I still maintain rock ’n’ roll should be self-taught. Guitar players usually fell into two categories: jazz players who could maybe read music and played arrangements, and hillbillies, cowboy players who could not read music and played instinctively.” Dickinson weaves his poetry into his narrative, sometimes reflecting on musicians and other times simply offering advice:
Play every gig
Like it’s the last one
One of them will be
Never throw it away
Or take it for granted
Put some bourbon in your coffee
Pour some gravy on the mashed potatoes
A little catsup on that T-bone, please.
In his final words in the book, Dickinson reminds us of the power of music to transcend these puny lives of ours and to linger in our souls: “The world of Otha Turner will pass away but it will not be gone. Like the scratches on the rock wall of some prehistoric cave, the recordings we leave behind are our immortality, our means of communicating with the future. This is an act of communication between you and us. Though we are separated by time and space as you listen, we are together.”
Jim Dickinson and Gregg Allman — and so many others — may be dead, but as long we have their words and music, they’ll never be gone, and for that we’re eternally grateful.